“Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home,” the poet Matsuo Basho wrote more than 300 years ago in the first entry of his masterpiece, Oku no Hosomichi, or Narrow Road to a Far Province. The words are on my mind as I prepare to walk in the footsteps of this revered poet, along his narrow road—the 1,200-mile route he followed through Japan in 1689. I confess that even to imagine doing so is a bit daunting. My late friend Helen Tanizaki, a linguist born and raised in Kyoto, told me, “Everyone I went to school with could recite at least one of Basho’s poems by heart. He was the first writer we read in any exciting or serious way.” Today thousands of people pilgrimage to Basho’s birthplace and burial shrine and travel parts of Basho’s Trail. After three centuries his Narrow Road, in print in English and many other languages, still speaks to readers around the world.
Given the pernicious clamor and uncertainties of our own times, it’s easy for a modern reader to identify with the vague unease that Basho sometimes complained of. Whatever its source—Basho lived a turbulent life in a changing Japan—his melancholy was an intensifying element in much of his writing and an important part of what, in the end, propelled him on his journeys.
Few details are known about Basho’s early life, but he is thought to have been born in 1644 in the castle town of Ueno, southeast of Kyoto. His father, a minor samurai, may have earned his keep teaching children to write. Many of Basho’s siblings probably became farmers.